Perils of Pretentious Prose

eweber   December 27, 2008   18 Comments

Imagine this year’s tax laws written in a language that you enjoy and understand. Or think of well-crafted words in your Final Will and Testimony – that express your legacy in language that inspires those you love. Is it time to demand clear communication for life-changing issues?

Some people look at this nation’s current shift of wealth to a few at the top, and wonder how they could have missed their own finances heading over slippery slopes.¬† Others claim that government and business policies¬† hide clues about their real meaning in the mayhem of chaotic legalese.

One change agent we worked with recently, suggested that lawyers and financial leaders deliberately use words few people understand, as a way to ensure that people will pay for ongoing services. Could that be true for other fields too?

Increasingly, we see people lose their homes over contracts they misunderstand. Others find themselves sued in lingo that leaves them confused about mistakes that otherwise could be fixed with respectful resolutions. Minorities face embarrassing situations when unfamiliar expressions exclude them. Leaders in one field falter because jargon in another field barricades any kind of joint solutions to shared problems.

Few would deny that when speech leads to miscommunication, dividends plummet for all.  In the chaos of pretentious prose, meaning yields to confusion, and turmoil takes its place. What if we continually asked good questions until clarity replaced jargon in communications related to our lives and communities? Could we show that language without clarity is an emperor without clothes?

18 thoughts on “Perils of Pretentious Prose

  1. eweber Post author

    Interesting point Robyn. Seems to me the assumption has been that complex ideas must come in convoluted language. Not so. It takes skill and listening to others to articulate in ways that work well to inspire and motivate all. It also takes great questions to help us clarify what is communicated with arrogance or clutter. Love CS Lewis’ notion of simplicity – beyond complexity. We’d have to teach writing and articulation in a whole new way to foster more effective communication across differences. Sure would be worth a try for the sake of consensus building alone! Agree?

  2. eweber Post author

    Conrad, thanks for your kind and encouraging words – and for catching the essence of a work that is central to MITA Brain Based learning and leading. It seems to me that the wonder and complexity of neuro-discoveries – can inform people’s lives and help to build stronger communities. That will depend on how we communicate ideas with respect for those whose backgrounds differ. It’s also the way we integrate insights from many fields – in ways that teach us all. No wonder lifelong learning works!!

  3. Wally Bock

    We are really talking about two kinds of clarity here. A professional jargon develops as a language of precision. Its purpose is to be unambiguously clear to specialists in situations where precise understanding is vital. A flooring contractor uses the term “above floor level” to mean a specific thing. Attorneys use the language of contracts for the same reason.

    The other kind of clarity is for communication between non-specialists. There simplicity and concrete examples rule.

    The two kinds of clarity are ultimately irreconcilable because each works best in a different situation. As Robyn noted above, the US Constitution requires some of the finest legal minds to interpret it. But that’s precisely because it is written in common language and not jargon.

    Wally Bocks last blog post..Caterpillar values people

  4. eweber Post author

    Ah Wally – interesting – I was waiting for somebody to make that distinction. Do you think we at times use jargon where we really need more precision? Or would you agree that all experts may not be effective communicators.

    As I read your thoughtful comments I wonder if we have set up hierarchies up in flawed ways through use of language? What do you think?

  5. Wally Bock

    You ask several questions, Ellen. Here are some opinions to match up to them.

    I think professional jargon becomes a habit. Once that happens, we use it without thinking about whether it’s appropriate or not.

    As for experts not being good communicators, I have two observations. Most of us were trained in school in ways that work against effective communication. So we all, experts and non-experts have to learn, use and practice better communication techniques. Experts in any field also suffer from “The Curse of Knowledge.” We know our field well and yearn to communicate details and nuance that often doesn’t matter to the layperson.

    Wally Bocks last blog post..Maybe we don’t need a consultant

  6. eweber Post author

    Wally – why do I so often wish we could have lunch and discuss so many of these great ideas from the wonderfully opposing angles that both shed light. You are a breath of fresh air and thanks for the way you think, apply, lead and share! You make it fun to be a lifelong learner!

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  11. kathy@Tustin dog bite attorney

    Actually there is movement to get attorneys to write plain English, but attorneys and consumers are resistant. People still want to see the thereoff, …said document…wherefore…and all that junk, otherwise it does not look legal to them.

  12. Greg Balanko-Dickson

    Curiosity telegraphs eagerness to “know” to that end “questions” are amazingly powerful tools for the fertile, curious mind.

    Rodney Dangerfield often used “I don’t get no respect.” in his stand up routine. My observation among the business community is that “questions don’t get no respect.”

  13. eweber Post author

    Thanks for your nudge toward curiosity Greg. Einstein nudged his brain and others there daily – and it’s a breath of fresh air!

    Great take on questions and what a reminder that so few ask them well that folks want to leap in and extend good ideas. Back to the drawing board (which is not a bad place to head :-))

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  16. Eva Ulian

    Language can be compared to dress. Just as we would not wear the same clothes to a funeral as we would to a run on the beach, so one does not use the same kind of language with everyone on every occasion, our own common sense tells us that. The question here is that just as flamboyancy, exaggeration and depravity shows up in dress, so it does with language- in either case nothing beats, simplicity to achieve elegance. There was a need for a reflection on this- good post Dr Ellen.

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